A North Central College campus safety officer doing a demonstration with a criminology student.

What is Criminology?

Reviewed by Jacob Imm

Jan 26, 2023

What is Criminology?

If you’ve ever wondered, “What is criminology?”, your first impressions may not encapsulate the whole picture. You need to think beyond pop culture depictions of a police officer and a crime-busting detective. 

Criminology intersects the study of crime with behavioral and social science. This specific sector closely examines the ‘why’ of criminal behavior rather than the ‘how.’ 

This field requires many in-depth studies that extend beyond the criminal system. As an introduction, we’ve created a thorough guide to help you traverse the world of criminology. Understanding the criminology requirements, special skills, and finesse needed to succeed can help set you up to become a successful working professional.

Criminology 101

Let’s start with defining the parameters surrounding the practice of criminology and how it can affect life after college. Criminology offers various opportunities, so honing in on niche interests may serve you well in future endeavors. 


Criminology refers to the study of crime and criminals within a societal sphere. Studying criminal behavior was relatively unheard of before the 1870s. Then, Cesare Lombroso, an Italian professor, deduced a potential connection through scientific determinism between criminals and an underdeveloped psyche. 

Though repeatedly debunked, Lombrosso's claims did provide a new way for scholars and experts to examine criminals. From his initial observation, many theories on criminal behavior have sprouted, morphed, and transformed into the study of criminology we know today. 

Criminology vs. Criminal Justice

Though these two fields need to work in tandem with each other, their differences are striking. 

  • Criminology – Criminology deals with the social and societal dynamics that inform criminal behavior. Criminology professionals spend their time trying to understand the mind of the criminal and work to stop crime before it happens. This also includes analyzing current crime prevention methodologies and processes to identify which are successful or need reform.
  • Criminal Justice – Criminal Justice deals with the repercussions of a criminal. These professionals aim to carry out appropriate punishments after committing a crime. They can also work to rehabilitate criminals to return to society as functional, upstanding citizens. 

Regardless of which field sounds more interesting, a comprehensive understanding of the law is absolutely crucial for success. 

What Do Criminology Professionals Do?

What can you do with a criminology degree? The study of criminology covers a lot of areas. Therefore, criminology professionals can cover a wide array of jobs. 

After graduating as a criminology major, you may be qualified to work as:

  • Government agent – With a major in criminology, you could work for the government in multiple roles. With hard work and expertise, you might work as a criminal investigator or detective. 
  • Lawyer – With extensive knowledge of criminal justice procedures and the penal code, many criminology majors become excellent lawyers who specialize in criminal law. By putting together an air-tight case, you can protect the lives and rights of many. 
  • Probation Officer – Help former criminals rehabilitate to civilian life by working as a probation officer. You’ll get to utilize your knowledge of criminal minds and help them better themselves upon release. 
  • Consultant or specialist – With the wide span of criminal proceedings, there are plenty of opportunities to work as a consultant or specialist for a niche criminology interest. You could work as a loss prevention specialist, criminal profiler, or psychologist. 

Where Do Criminologists Work?

Criminologists cover many bases and will spend their days in different locations depending on their area of expertise. 

You could find a criminologist working at:

  • Social service offices
  • Courthouses
  • Law offices
  • Correctional facilities
  • Police precincts
  • Juvenile detention centers
  • Legislative offices

Regardless of where they’re found, criminologists definitely impact a large number of people. And if sitting in an office all day isn’t for you, it might be worth looking into roles like law enforcement or police work where you may spend most of your time working out of the office and in the public. 

What Will I Learn in a Criminology Course?

The study of criminology is primarily rooted in theoretical analysis. A criminology degree will challenge you to examine forensics analytically and through a social lens. For example, esteemed criminology professor Larry J. Siegel stresses three main components of social process theory, a foundational concept for the field. 

According to an article written by Siegel published in the National Criminal Justice Reference Services Library, “people learn how to commit crimes; social control theory analyzes the failure of society to control criminal tendencies; negative labels produce criminal careers.” With social concept theories, you’ll learn to connect an individual’s social relationships with criminal activity.

In addition, you’ll likely spend your undergrad studying the leading schools of criminology. These schools, while rooted in well-known philosophies, must be demarcated from each other for their fundamentally different views on criminality. 

  • Classical School – The Classical School of criminology dictates that individuals commit crimes to satisfy a need to enact their free will. Classicalists believe punishment is the only natural deterrent to a life of crime. 
  • Positivist School – The Positivist School focuses more on the behavior behind an individual offender. By analyzing any physical, social, or moral discrepancies, positivists believe motivation becomes apparent. 
  • Neo-Classical Schools – Modern-day takes on these schools have delineated far from their inception. For example, the Neo-Classical School insists that individuals turn to crime due to commodity scarcity and societal chaos. 

A criminology major will set you up with the knowledge and differing perspectives needed to apply for jobs within the criminal sector. It can also introduce you to niche interests that can lead to more specific degrees or opportunities down the line.

Find out more about North Central College

How To Get Started in a Criminology Career

Because so many criminology careers exist, there’s no straightforward path. Each criminology career path has a specific trajectory you’ll need to follow instead. Luckily, you can start your journey while still attending school. 

Just as criminology extends beyond jailhouses, a criminology major should extend beyond the classroom. There are plenty of resources you can take advantage of to put you on track to obtain a job in the criminal justice sphere. 

  • Conduct research – Criminology relies on theoretical hypotheses and analysis, so why not try it out yourself? Use your time in undergrad as an opportunity to research criminal behavior. You can go the extra mile and present your findings to your college’s research department
  • Network with real professionals – Opt for a college that hosts an array of guest speakers and industry professionals. You should also try to secure an internship with a real criminology professional to gain experience on and off campus. 
  • Live in the city – Look for ways to gain practical knowledge in the field. If you want the chance to earn field experience, you’ll want to research colleges that offer local internship opportunities. Particularly, if you want to study criminology in an urban setting, look for schools with close proximity to a city teeming with criminology professionals, where you can easily gather urban research and experience. Or, if you hope to expand your criminology knowledge with a more global perspective, you can opt for institutions that provide study abroad opportunities for criminology majors.

Real-world experience adds substantial value to your undergraduate learning. It can also provide you with the tools and skills required to thrive in a criminology career path down the line. 

Required Skills

Before becoming a fully-fledged criminologist or entering a law enforcement agency, you’ll need to hone your skills. In addition to meeting specific personality markers, these jobs will require proficiency in high technical skills. 

Luckily, a criminology major can help you master:

  • Research – Many criminologists spend their time deep in research, so the ability to comprehend scientific and statistical analysis proves crucial. Your day-to-day may include looking into criminal trends, police data, or forensic findings. 
  • Interpersonal Skills – Not only can communication skills help you with job interviews, but they can also strengthen your entire criminology career. Criminal professionals often have to conduct interviews or provide consultation to criminals and legal professionals. The art of interacting requires in-depth knowledge, empathy, and confidence. A behavioral science class couldn’t hurt, either.  
  • Computer Literacy – Even if you end up pounding the pavement as a detective, you’ll likely need to spend some time in front of a computer screen. You’ll need to navigate online databases, look up case files, and even recognize red flags for the recent increase in cybercrime. 
  • Writing – You may not be a novelist, but if you work in criminology, you’ll have to write a report or two. Criminology professionals need to document findings in explicit detail. Something as simple as a description, license plate, or time of day can cause a breakthrough in a case.

Signs You’d Love Criminology

Criminology can prove to be an intense field not for the faint of heart. While the study of criminals feels theoretical, the cases and people you’ll encounter are not. 

Criminology may be right for you if you:

  • Don’t fear conflict
  • Draw your own conclusions
  • Aim to protect others
  • Strive for understanding
  • Communicate effectively
  • Have a deep sense of empathy
  • Work well with others

Crack Down on Crime

Criminology offers a large-scale look at criminal affairs and the human experience. By studying the intersections of crime, society, and human behavior, you can protect the lives of the innocent without stripping criminals of their voices. 

If the world of criminology sounds fascinating to you, you can begin your education today. 

When looking for your ideal criminology program, it’s vital to find one that offers various perspectives and practices to ensure your education is well-balanced. You’ll want to consider institutions like North Central College that offer a suite of elective classes ranging from sociology to psychology to political science. As part of a well-balanced education, you’ll want to search for colleges that provide opportunities for practical experience. You can acquire practical knowledge through research, academic immersion, or an internship–opportunities available at schools like North Central College. By gaining practical experience, you’ll leave school with substantial knowledge of the criminal justice system awaiting you. 

Get the most out of your criminology degree by combining practical, real-world knowledge with abstract philosophies. Equipped with comprehensive courses, you can enter the workforce with confidence and determination to make the world a safer place. 

Jacob Imm is the associate director of communication in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 13 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.



Darvesh, Zeba. (n.d.). “Schools of Criminology: A Comparative Analysis.” Indian Journal of Integrated Research in Law, vol. 2, no. 2. Retrieved September 28, 2022, from https://ijirl.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/SCHOOLS-OF-CRIMINOLOGY-A-COMPARATIVE-ANALYSIS.pdf

Pelfrey, W. V. and Anderson Publishing Co. (1980). Evolution of Criminology. National Criminal Justice Reference Services Library. Retrieved September 28, 2022, from https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/evolution-criminology

Siegel, Larry J. (2000). “Social Process Theories.” Criminology, 7th ed., pp. 220-253. National Criminal Justice Reference Services Library. Retrieved September 28, 2022, from https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/social-process-theories-criminology-seventh-edition-p-220-253-2000